County OMA violation case in review by special prosecutor

Local News

MONTICELLO, Ill. (WCIA) — Misdemeanor charges against nearly all of Piatt County’s board members are now in the hands of the Illinois State’s Attorney’s Appellate Prosecutor following a decision from the Sixth Circuit Chief Judge last week.

Judge Karle Koritz appointed the ISAAP as the prosecuting entity on July 1, citing a “conflict of interest” between the State’s Attorney’s dual role as legal counsel for the board and the office that brought charges against five of six board members in early May. 

Assistant State’s Attorney Elizabeth Dobson filed the Class C misdemeanor charges against Ray Spencer, Dale Lattz, Renee Fruendt, Bob Murrell and Shannon Carroll on May 15. They allege that the disconnection of a county board Zoom call on May 13 for an executive session violated the Open Meetings Act, as members of the public were kicked off the meeting before it officially ended and unable to rejoin for a second portion that included a board vote. 

In that original filing, Dobson acknowledged that because she and State’s Attorney Dana Rhoades were witnesses to the violation via their presence at the meeting, their office “could not, and would not, serve as prosecutors” to the case.  

Koritz’s ruling to hand the case to the ISAAP indicated a “bewilder(ment)” with the way charges were filed, but Dobson said that procedurally, the state’s attorney’s office did nothing out of the ordinary.

“…In a case where a police officer observes a traffic violation, follows the offender, investigates whatever and then writes that person a citation — which we call a complaint — (then) refers the charge to us for the prosecution, what is the difference between (that and) me witnessing a violation of the OMA and then giving it to someone else to prosecute?” she said. “I fail to see that there’s a difference and I fail to see that that’s somehow bizarre. I think what it is is the most efficient use of time.” 

County board members had been warned in advance of the May 13 meeting that potential violations lay ahead as they attempted to navigate unfamiliar technology in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Rhoades said OMA legal advice was included among the 6o different topics she’s sent to the board since November 1, which totals nearly 100 pages of emails. 

Spencer, the board’s chair, “hasn’t responded to anything,” she said. 

Additionally, Dobson sent an email the afternoon of May 13 telling all board members she wanted “to make sure that you are aware of the specific requirements of the OMA when conducting a Zoom meeting, then an executive session by Zoom, then a reconnect with the public participants on a Zoom call.” 

“…For the sake of avoiding future litigation, please make sure that you are familiar with the rules and follow all of them,” she wrote. “The COVID-19 pandemic did not cause a complete abdication of open meetings act rules, as far as transparency with the public is concerned.” 

As with other such emails, there was no response from board members, she said.  

It was that email that established board intent, according to the state Attorney General’s office, Rhoades said. Dobson “called the attorney general before the charges were filed and the AG confirmed they were violations.” 

“Key in their mind is that the email had been sent during the day advising that we were trying to assist — to avoid a problem, and according to the AG, that establishes (the board’s) intent,” Rhoades said. Dobson “talked to them prior to the filing and I talked to them (via a different bureau) later about handling the case and they seemed agreeable to taking it.”

Koritz, however, argued in his ruling that the court has its own ability to choose which special prosecutor will be appointed to review the case, and chose the ISAAP instead.

The future of county Zoom meetings

While the ISAAP decides whether or not it will prosecute the OMA-related charges against them, members will have to decide whether they will adopt an amendment that allows them to legally hold Zoom meetings in the future. 

Currently, Piatt County’s bylaws do not permit anything other than in-person meetings. 

Local government bodies across the state turned to remote meetings via Zoom or telephone earlier this year, following executive orders from Governor JB Pritzker limiting group sizes to 10 people or fewer in efforts to mitigate the spread of the virus. 

Even though the state has transitioned into Phase 4 of the Restore Illinois reopening plan, now allowing 50 or fewer people to gather, accessibility and COVID-related concerns have prompted some government groups to keep Zoom as an option for people who may not want to be in large groups.   

Whether Piatt County will do so remains undetermined. 

A county board meeting slated for July 8 via Zoom was cancelled after half of the board declined to show up for the call. 

The agenda for a meeting rescheduled for July 15 contains no Zoom call-in information. 

Rhoades said she’s already drafted an amendment that would allow the board to hold remote meetings — all the board needs to do, she said, is vote to pass it. 

“We had another 1,300 positive COVID cases in the state (Friday),” Rhoades said. Remote meetings or the option for the public to stream a meeting remotely is “still advisable.”

And while Rhoades was the first to give that advice to board members, DeWitt-Piatt BiCounty Public Health Administrator David Remmert echoed the recommendation in a memo of his own.

“I would recommend that you maintain an option of either coming physically to the meeting OR allowing participants to Zoom into the meeting at their discretion,” he wrote to board members on July 6. “This way, all participants are able to continue their civic responsibilities as dictated by their
personal comfort level.”

The agenda for the next county board meeting does not include any items related to such an amendment.  

Spencer did not respond to multiple requests for comment Friday.

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